Home > Christianity, Christology, Church History, Criticism, History of Religion and Culture > Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire

Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire

  • Author: Rebecca Ann Parker, Rita Nakashima Brock
  • Publisher:  Beacon Press
  • Published: July, 2008
  • Pages: 592
  • Language: English
  • Format:  PDF
  • Price: $17.96

During their first millennium, Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ as a living presence-as a shepherd, teacher, healer, or an enthroned god. He is serene and surrounded by lush scenes, depictions of this world as paradise. Yet once he appeared as crucified, dying was virtually all Jesus seemed able to do, and paradise disappeared from the earth. Saving Paradise turns a fascinating new lens on Christianity, from its first centuries to the present day, asking how its early vision of beauty evolved into a vision of torture, and what changes in society and theology marked that evolution. It also retrieves, for today, a life-affirming Christianity that the world sorely needs.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Brock and Parker begin their research perplexed by a riddle: Why are images of the crucified Christ absent from early Christian art? After visiting Mediterranean and European sites sacred to early Christians, Brock and Parker formulate a provocative answer: the dying Christ never appears in early Christian art because early Christians did not believe Christ’s redemptive death had opened a heavenly afterlife for the faithful. Rather, Brock and Parker assert, early Christians looked to Jesus as the exemplar who showed how to defy injustice by creating paradise on Earth in a loving community. In this theory, images of Christ’s passion and death invaded Christian art only when the Church started using a theology of otherworldly salvation to recruit the forces necessary to build a Christian empire. Skeptics may view with suspicion the authors’ willingness to substitute conjectural interpretations of art and heretical gnostic texts for plain readings of the orthodox biblical canon. However, as the response to The Da Vinci Code (2003) established, highly speculative retellings of Christian history attract readers. –Bryce Christensen


In the best tradition of theological inquiry, Saving Paradise provides a history and a theology that helps us engage the pressing problems of the world. . . . In Saving Paradise, Brock and Parker have brought forward a bright thread of the Christian tapestry that had been in the background, largely ignored. In so doing they have made accessible rich and vivid theological resources. —Margaret R. Miles, Christian Century

This humane and often beautiful study of faith, loss and hope straddles the boundary between historical discovery and spiritual writing.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

Saving Paradise offers eye-opening explorations of the mixture of spiritual vision and myopia that marked many of the great figures of Western Christianity. Its rich text and the additional material in its notes should spur readers to examine both the darkness and the light that can be found in all of us.” —Darrell Turner, National Catholic Reporter

Brock and Parker urge readers to see church history in a new light, with an eye toward social justice. . . . By re-emphasizing early Christians’ focus on paradise, on the kingdom of God on Earth, the authors are convinced they are reclaiming authentic ‘traditional’ Christianity. It’s a controversial thesis, deserving of debate and study.”—Douglas Todd, Religion News Services

This powerful, unprecedented, and compelling book brings real Christianity out of the shadows.”—George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!

Only rarely is a single book an event. This book is such a rarity.”—Professor Daniel C. Maguire, author of A Moral Creed for All Christians

About the Author

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker are coauthors of Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. Parker is president of and professor of theology at the Starr King School for the Ministry. Brock is director of Faith Voices for the Common Good and a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Most helpful reviews

Saving Paradise–A MUST READ

By Tamara E. Lewis

I LOVE Saving Paradise!! Brock and Parker provide a historical lens through Christian thought and practice that demonstrates that the earliest followers of Christ embraced a theology of hope, life, and living community as opposed to the emphasis on torture, suffering, and death. As a graduate student of church history, I found myself amazed in my own studies of even so-called `orthodox’ Church Fathers including Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, and Origen that a theology of the cross was not highlighted. Instead, these thinkers, whose works are indicative of many early Christian communities, highlight the Incarnation of Christ as the crucial defining event–the coming of the Logos to the world as a human being. Even later thinkers (like Athanasius and Cyril) embroiled in the Christological controversies of Nicaea and later Constantinople, were concerned with the definition of the Logos-man–how God could come in the flesh. Again, it was the living incarnation of God in Christ that was the crucial defining event–that is, the LIFE that God brought to humanity through Christ, not the death and suffering of the crucifixion alone which is the pivotal event in Christology! Brock and Parker make this case convincingly by traveling through the annals of church history and showing that it was in the second millennium of Christian history, amidst the warring struggles of the tribes of Europe and later in the birth of the Holy Roman Empire, that the theology of the crucifixion rises to prominence. This book is a MUST for students of the bible, Christian thought, the history of Christianity, theology, or anyone interested in the way that Christian ideas and doctrine are transmitted through the church and other institutions! In addition, it is a DELIGHTFUL read! The text is comforting and enjoyable to peruse, and is very spiritual and healing in places, particularly in the description of early Christian rites and practices. There are portions of this text that I plan to read over and over again in the future for this reason. Persons who have questioned or even struggled with the focus of torture and suffering in the passion and crucifixion singly as the way to salvation in the Christian faith will find themselves blessed and encouraged by these authors’ re-discovery of the beauty, light, community, and fellowship among early followers of Christ–paradise!!

American Studies/LCST Should Take Note

By Joanne M. Braxton

SAVING PARADISE illuminates the origins of Christianity and the quest for human wholeness and shows how both got “hijacked” by imperial ambitions in the 9th. c., leading to the crusades and other forms of church sanctioned violence. From an Ameircan Studies studies standpoint, the last four chapters showing the connection among this dislocated Christianity, imperial ambitions, New World conquest, and the enslavement of African peoples are extremely valuable. The chapters shed suprizing light on familiar figures such as Edwards, Emerson and Thoreau by examining them within Christianity’s cultural shift to redemptive violence. This is a book that calls us to struggle for justice and peace on this earth, rather than some imagined afterlife or ‘new world.’ For those who are willing to embrace it, this work frames a challenge to re-vision love for this world here and now as the necessary first step for creating a sustainable future. It transcends doctrine and denomination to elevate theoretical discourse and empower practical imagination, giving us both a history of how we got into our present situation and resources for finding our way out of it. A must read for intelligent persons of all persuasions in a world where truth is increasingly scarce and profound reconsiderations are imperative.

Paradise permeates all of Creation

By Sherwood Pidcock

Images of Jesus’s crucifixion did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? The crucified Christ is so important to Western Christianity, how could it be that images of his suffering and death were absent from early churches? With these questions began a five year pilgrimage for the authors. They were taught that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ saved the world and that this idea was the core of Christian faith. However, during extensive searching, they found that prior to the tenth century, Christian imagery portrayed Jesus alive teaching and healing, living in the paradise that is this world. All the images were of goodness and plenty, of gentleness and love; images that reflect the belief that creation is good and blessed by God’s love, especially in the person of Jesus Christ. The foundation of Christianity is grounded on love of this world and a certainty that paradise permeates all of creation. The Eucharist was a sign of paradise and celebrated in gratitude and joy with Christ.

Brock and Parker take on the history of the subversion of the Christian message beginning with Charlemagne, who instituted the death penalty for conquered people who refused to convert to Christianity. After Charlemagne, the clergy introduced the dead body of Christ into the Eucharist. Killing, suffering and dying in the name of Christ began to represent the highest honor for Christians.

At 550 pages (including extensive notes and index) this book is not for the faint of heart. But, just like their first book Proverbs of Ashes, it is written in an approachable, conversational style. Consider reading and talking about it in a small group with people taking responsibility for one or two chapters, or bring it into a classroom and/or church setting.

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